When the news broke last March that non-essential New York businesses were to be shut down indefinitely due to rapidly rising COVID-19 numbers, most assumed it would be a temporary inconvenience in order to slow the spread of the virus. A few weeks, and we would be back to “normal.”
This was the belief held by the staff at New Paltz Cinemas — the town’s only four-screen movie theater located in the Tops Plaza. When the popcorn stopped popping and the auditorium doors were shut, the assumption was that theatergoers would be back walking through them in no time.
Now, for obvious reasons, there hasn’t been a full house at New Paltz Cinemas in nearly a year.
“We heard rumors it would be long term and we thought, ‘Well that can’t possibly be true,’ you know,” said Jackie Kirker, the office manager at New Paltz Cinemas. “Who could have possibly imagined that we would be closed for seven months? It seemed incomprehensible at that time.”
As “a few weeks” turned into “over a month,” the fact that the metaphorical curtains would remain shutter for longer than anyone hoped began to sink in. Across the country, the shutdown extended to the film industry at large. Films were forced to cease production indefinitely and major studios began delaying blockbuster releases. On the other hand, films that had planned theatrical releases were being sent directly to streaming services or video-on-demand.
With summer — usually the busiest season for the movie industry — approaching, the way we were consuming films was actively changing, all while theaters remained closed. So, local theaters found ways to stay active while unable to operate as usual.
At New Paltz Cinemas, this was through community outreach. Managers returned to the theater to begin popping corn to donate to fire stations, hospitals and other first responders. Bags were also put together for local schools, to be handed out alongside school-provided meals.
“Although kids weren’t in school anymore, a lot of kids don’t have food and they were picking up meals at the school, so we donated popcorn to go with that,” Kirker said. “We just tried to keep ourselves busy by doing something like that while we were waiting, and it worked.”
Of course, a seven month shutdown doesn’t just have an effect on morale; there are monetary consequences, too. In an attempt to bring in some revenue, New Paltz Cinemas was given permission to open their doors on weekends over the summer for snack sales. Tables were set up so customers could safely purchase freshly popped popcorn and candy to bring home for their own movie nights.
As summer came to a close and theater staff did their best to keep busy and engaged with the community, New Paltz Cinemas finally got the news that they had been waiting seven months to hear; At the end of October, Governor Andrew Cuomo would begin to allow movie theaters in certain upstate regions to reopen. New Paltz, due to consistently low COVID-19 numbers, was included.
“For weeks prior we were working with our representatives to try to understand why we were one of the only ones not to be reopened. Because truthfully, we could do the same things that the restaurants were doing, and open safely,” Kirker said. “We had been pushing it forward for a while, and then finally got the word.”
The permission to reopen, though, was not something that the theater was going to take lightly. Immediately, New Paltz Cinemas hit the ground to assure that they would be able to open their doors while keeping moviegoers safe and preventing the spread of the virus.
The first step was to purchase advanced misters — the same being used by airlines — that contain viral size disinfectant. In between each showing, seats are sprayed down by staff and time is allowed for the disinfectant to seep in and dry before the next set of patrons are welcomed.
“These things work really, really well, so we went the extra mile to purchase that and, of course, everyone has to still wear a mask until they’re seated in the auditoriums,” Kirker said. “We have sanitizer around, and we temperature check all of our employees. We’re doing everything we can.”
Currently, the theater is operating at 25% capacity, and is only open on weekends. Though many major studio releases have been delayed due to nationwide shutdowns, the theater is currently showing new releases, along with the occasional classics on the big screen.
While the staff at New Paltz Cinemas is excited to welcome community members back to the movies, they understand that everyone will do so at their own pace. Still, Kirker assures moviegoers that all precautions are being taken, and that safety of their staff and patrons is top priority.
Along with the measures mentioned above, the theater also offers a new contactless ticketing system that is integrated with seating. Seats are now reserved in advance and groups are placed six-feet apart, to allow for proper social distancing.
“We understand that people are still obviously weary and want to protect themselves, and we are doing every precaution that we can,” Kirker said. “There are not a lot of people in those theaters, and at 25%, it is at most 30 people in the auditorium.”
At the same time COVID-19 shut down the theater, New Paltz Cinemas was undergoing a major change of their own; heated recliners were to replace the traditional seating in all auditoriums. With installation slotted for April, the theater made the decision to go ahead and install the recliners while doors were shuttered; and though they sat unoccupied for most of last year, they are more than ready to be enjoyed.
“It was something that we wanted to do because although we’ll never be able to have the stadium seating that people like — we can’t do that because of the layout of our theaters — we can certainly make sure that you’re comfortable when you sit there,” Kirker said.
If you aren’t comfortable returning to the movies just yet, the theater always offers to-go popcorn and candy. Additionally, if you’d like to support the theater, discount ticket books are available; these include 10 tickets good for any showing, that never expire, for only $59.
For college students, New Paltz Cinema offers a special discounted rate; $7 for any evening ticket. The theater is open every weekend, and showtime information can be found at www.greatmovieslowerprices.com/new-paltz-cinemas.
With major studios withholding films from theatrical release until New York and Los Angeles reopen, Kirker describes the theater’s current state as a “holding pattern.” Still, the doors remain open, popcorn popping and movies screening.